One of the ways that I think about curriculum design is the balance of just-in-case learning and just-in-time learning. Just-in-case learning is what I was accustomed to when I was in school: subject-matter experts had compiled a list of topics in their field that students should learn, just in case they needed it in their future studies or career. For example, someone determined that high school students might need to solve a quadratic equation, so I learned how to factor quadratics; someone else determined that British Columbians should know about how BC joined confederation, so my classmates and I learned about John A. Macdonald and the Canadian Pacific Railway. In contrast, just-in-time learning is about designing the curriculum so students learn topics and skills at the moment when they need them. In my experience, this has been common in my life outside of school. Things like changing a flat tire or baking bread from scratch were not in the school curriculum, but they are things that I learned how to do when I needed to be able to do them.
To say that I did not love learning about quadratic equations would be an understatement. It was a difficult topic that seemed quite arbitrary because the equations that we practiced with didn’t represent anything in real life. But… later on my studies, when I needed quadratic equations to describe the movement of a projectile, factoring a quadratic equation was a skill that came in handy. This highlights two benefits of a just-in-time approach: a need for a skill to complete a task or solve a problem is a great motivator to learn that skill, and the context of the problem or task helps the learner understand what they’re doing by connecting the abstract skills to something meaningful in real-life.
In my practice as a teacher, I have found a happy medium between just-in-case and just-in-time learning. By designing units around real-world tasks or problems that will require the knowledge and skills I know they are likely to need in the future, students get the best of both approaches. Moreover, this helps students to develop and demonstrate more agency as learners and problems solvers. Instead of the teachers saying something like, “Let’s apply what we have learned about [topic] to [problem]”, students learn to think, “What do I already know that could help me with [problem] and what else could I learn that would help?”
Given how rapidly the world is changing, and how quickly our knowledge is expanding, it is not possible for schools to teach everything that students might need to know in their future; however, we can help students to build a base of knowledge from which they can learn new things, and nurture the disposition and skills that will empower them to continue learning in all the new situations where they might find themselves.